EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – For Minnesota Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf, leadership isn’t about doing interviews about the state of the organization.
It’s about placing a symbolic arm around a heartbroken defensive end who suddenly and unexpectedly lost his mother during the season.
It’s not about breaking down film and deciding which prospect should be chosen with the team’s first-round draft pick. It’s about sitting quietly in the room and listening while the people they hired to do that job debate the decision.
It’s not about standing on the sideline in full view of the television cameras, so the country can see them slapping the backs of their players and congratulating the head coach. It’s about retreating to the privacy of the locker room after the game and handing a necktie to the star of the day.
The understated approach has paid off this season with their Vikings surprising almost everyone to rebound from 3-13 to make the playoffs.
“Their approach works. It’s good that they trust the people they hire to do their job as opposed to micromanaging the situation,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said on Thursday. “It’s refreshing in a lot of ways.”
The Vikings (10-6) head to Lambeau Field on Saturday night for Episode III of their heated rivalry with the Green Bay Packers (11-5), less than a week after a 37-34 victory at the Metrodome that thrust them into the playoffs.
It’s been a heck of a ride, with a 5-2 start preceding a stretch of four losses in five games that made every week a must-win in December.
The Vikings never panicked, taking cues from an ownership group that values patience and perspective in a league where the pendulum of emotion can swing wildly from one week to the next.
You won’t see Zygi Wilf on the sideline on Saturday night and you won’t hear him in the media during the frenetic buildup to this highly anticipated game — both Wilfs politely declined to speak for this story.
Now is not the time for them to be doing the talking, they said. It’s the time when the focus should be on the players and coaches who have spearheaded this revival after two straight last-place finishes in the NFC North.
“Just like any family, when you go through ups and downs or different crises, it’s unbelievable the relationship we have to discuss things openly and candidly,” general manager Rick Spielman said. “That’s so important to how you get through things. It’s not a business, even though it is a business. You can attribute a lot of success we’re having to the atmosphere we get to work in.”
The gestures have been big and small this season, starting with sending Spielman and other members of the Vikings organization to Ohio when cornerback Antoine Winfield’s brother was killed in September.
They did the same for defensive end Everson Griffen when his mother died at Griffen’s home in October, making sure the distraught 25-year-old had every resource available to get through it.
“It showed me a lot,” Griffen said. “It showed me they really care about their players. It showed me that I had a home here and that really helped.”
Zygi Wilf also had several conversations with star running back Adrian Peterson over the summer when he was in the middle of his long and difficult rehabilitation from two torn ligaments in his left knee.
While many doubted if Peterson would be able to make it back, he said Wilf remained confident in his franchise player’s recovery.
“I got to know him a lot better this past off-season,” Peterson said. “We built a bigger bond. We had a couple of really good conversations while I was going through it. I trust him.”
On the football side, the Wilfs approved spending for a set of officials to be at every practice after the Vikings struggled the previous season with penalties.
They also heeded calls from veterans and Frazier to install new turf in the practice facility, a surprise that was waiting for the team when it returned from the bye week in November.
They also provided a bigger, more comfortable private plane for the team’s longer road trips to Seattle and Houston this season in addition to sparing no expense when Spielman set his sights on an important free agent or re-signing a core player.
“It’s just so unique to have ownership that are in the background but are a lot more heavily involved than it’s known in the public,” Spielman said. “They also let people do their jobs.”
The season appeared to be taking an ominous turn with a demoralizing loss at Green Bay that dropped them to 6-6.
A promising start seemed to be slipping away, so Wilf addressed the team on the Friday before a home game against the Chicago Bears to try to relieve some of the tension.
“He’s passionate and genuine,” Peterson said. “It don’t get no better than that. He said, ‘I got your back.'”
The Vikings haven’t lost since.
“They treat our players more than just players. They’re people they care about,” Frazier said. “Our players sense that. That’s why when Zygi came in and talked about the passion he has for this team and this organization, that resonated with them. They’ve seen tangible evidence in the way he treats our players.
“When some owners talk about it being a family atmosphere, you take it with a grain of salt. Our players know it for a fact. When they deal with certain issues, Zygi, Mark and the Wilf family really care about what’s going on in their lives.”